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3 foreign stock funds to smooth the bumps overseas

Friday - 6/8/2012, 12:29pm  ET

By MARK JEWELL
AP Personal Finance Writer

BOSTON (AP) - Could the international investments in your mutual fund portfolio be setting you up for a summer of anxiety, rather than rest and relaxation? Recent headlines suggest it's time to stay alert, at a minimum. Now may also be a good time to review whether a lower-risk approach is in order.

Consider that stocks lost much more overseas in May than they did here. The 6 percent drop in the Standard & Poor's 500 index was the smallest decline among more than two-dozen developed markets around the globe. Not counting the U.S., stocks in those countries dropped an average of nearly 12 percent.

Investors remain on edge approaching a June 17 election, when voters in debt-burdened Greece could choose leaders who want to reject Europe's bailout money along with spending cuts. That could trigger a Greek exit from Europe's currency union, and maybe a messy breakup of the entire eurozone.

Prospects also have worsened in the less-developed countries that are key players in the global economy. Growth is slowing in India, and China on Thursday cut a key lending rate to try to stimulate its economy.

Investing requires accepting uncertainty. But recent market trends suggest there's plenty of unease. Across much of the globe, stocks that rallied early this year have erased most or all of those gains in recent weeks.

"Uncertainty is high, and you'd be hard-pressed now to find any fund manager willing to say, `Over the short term, stocks are going to rise rather than fall, or vice versa," says Bill Rocco, a Morningstar analyst specializing in foreign stock funds.

Historically, foreign stocks have tended to rise and fall more dramatically than domestic ones. It's an important consideration for investors who are unusually risk-averse, and can't afford a big hit to their savings from a potential market decline.

If that's you, a lower-risk approach to international investing is advisable. You might want to trim your foreign holdings. But if you don't want to miss the potential growth overseas, consider switching to foreign stock funds that have delivered strong performance in the long term, with less volatility than their peers.

Below are three such funds that Morningstar gives a "low" risk rating. That's the bottom of five levels that the fund researcher uses to measure the risks of investing in a particular fund, based on how much its past returns varied from those of its peers.

The list excludes funds investing primarily in mid- and small-cap stocks, whose prices tend to swing more often than stocks of larger companies. Funds specializing in growth stocks also are excluded, because they're typically more volatile than value stocks, which are priced at a discount relative to the earnings they generate.

Each of these funds has a 10-year record placing it in the top 15 percent of its peers. They also charge expenses that are in line or less than those of their peers, and require minimum initial investments of $2,500 or less.

The trio, ranked in order of their average 10-year annualized returns:

1. MFS INTERNATIONAL VALUE (MGIAX)

10-year annualized return: 8 percent

This fund carries a silver-medal rating, based on Morningstar's assessment of its future performance prospects. Morningstar cites the fund's consistency in limiting losses when stocks decline. Its 10-year record is in the top 1 percent of its foreign large-cap value peers, and it's in the top 2 percent over five years, and the past 12 months.

In 2008, it lost a relatively small 32 percent, some 10 percentage points less than its peers. A note of caution: This fund recently had nearly 25 percent of its portfolio in consumer defensive stocks such as food makers, a weighting that's nearly three times greater than its peer group. If stocks rally, that defensive approach could cause the fund to gain less than most peers.

2. SEXTANT INTERNATIONAL (SSIFX)

10-year annualized return: 7.9 percent

This fund finished in the top 8 percent of its category last year, when foreign stocks performed markedly worse than U.S. stocks. In 2008, the fund lost 27 percent, far below the average 44 percent decline in its category. It's the lowest-cost fund among the group of three, with an expense ratio of 0.88 percent. Nicholas Kaiser has managed the fund since 1995. He recently kept nearly 27 percent of the portfolio in cash, a defensive approach that could limit losses if stocks tumble. But if there's a rally, expect that big cash cushion to hurt performance.

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